When life imitates art

Oil on canvas, Two Strings to Her Bow, 1887, John Pettie, Original in the collections of the Art Gallery and Museum, Kelvingrove
John Pettie, "Two Strings to Her Bow," Art Gallery and Museum, Kelvingrove, 1887.

The theme of my two Regency novels, Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander and Pride/Prejudice, is the m/m/f ménage told as a romance, a love story with two happy endings. At the end of the novels, the hero—a conventionally masculine man—is in loving relationships with his wife and a male partner, and each partner is aware of and accepts the other. Naturally, some readers have wondered whether, in the punitive, homophobic world of Regency England such a situation was possible, while others find my heroes unsettling, so different from today’s ideas of gender-bending LGBTQ identity.

In arriving at my version of the Regency gay subculture, I relied on a combination of research and imagination. I envisioned a society in transition, moving away from legal sanctions against particular sexual acts and toward our modern idea of sexual orientation and acceptance. It was a world far more segregated by gender and social class than ours and, as I saw it, a world where gay and bisexual upper-class men could coexist with their heterosexual peers as long as they behaved with discretion, conforming to traditional notions of masculine appearance and behavior.

Over the years, I’ve found more sources that supported my early intuitive process. Recent scholarship reports that many human societies across geography and time classify male homosexuality by gender- and age-stratified systems in which a man’s role defines his sexuality. Only in a third, rarer system, called “egalitarian,” does the gender of a man’s partners alone define his sexual identity.

Western Europe began to shift to this egalitarian model at the end of the 17th century. Three hundred years later, it feels so natural to us that it’s hard to imagine any other way. So when I found a New York Times article about gay people in Pakistan a few weeks ago, I was excited to hear echoes of my fictional world.

Although “the notion of homosexuality may be taboo” in Pakistan, the Times reporter explains:

homosocial, and even homosexual, behavior is common enough. Pakistani society is sharply segregated on gender lines, with taboos about extramarital sex that make it almost harder to conduct a secret heterosexual romance than a homosexual one. Displays of affection between men in public, like hugging and holding hands, are common.

That sounded a lot like what I’d discovered—and imagined—about the erotic and romantic worlds of Regency England. The more I read, the more the similarities struck home. In both, it seems, “same-sex attraction was not necessarily an issue because it did not involve questions of identity.” In both, we find that many “men who have sex with men do not think of themselves as gay.” Some, like my gap-toothed Ganymede character, Kit, do it simply “for money”; others, though, “do it regularly, when they need a break from their wives.”

The most haunting parallel came when a gay journalist in the article declares that “It’s very easy being gay here, to be honest, as long as you are not wearing a pink tutu and running down the street carrying a rainbow flag.” Early in Phyllida, a gay friend reassures the heroine as to her husband’s safety—relatively speaking—using the same sort of image. True, a fellow aristocrat had been forced to flee the country, Sir Frederick says, but hadn’t he drawn attention to himself? “Man wore pink ribbons in his shoes, for God’s sake,” he insists. “No need to worry Mrs. Carrington over an odd fish like that.”

As Stephanie Coontz has argued, once romantic love becomes the only valid basis for forming a lifelong marriage, there is no reason to discriminate against same-sex couples, any more than against interracial, interfaith, or older couples. In Pakistan, arranged marriages are still the norm, with children, property, and family connections the primary considerations in choosing a spouse. As a romance author, I can’t help but wonder whether marriage there will eventually shift toward a love-based model, or if something new will emerge for straight, bisexual, and same-sex partners alike.

Whatever happens, I wish the LGBTQ people of Pakistan all the best as they work toward achieving acceptance and equal rights—not just in private life, but also in the public sphere. Pink ribbons, pink tutus, and rainbow flags aside, I’m all about the happy ending.

Note: My main source was Rictor Norton’s Mother Clap’s Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England, 1700-1830. London: GMP, 1992.

Ann Herendeen

Ann Herendeen is a novelist and part-time cataloger at a natural history museum library. She lives in Brooklyn. For more about her heroes and their historical roots, see "The Upper-Class Bisexual Top as Romantic Hero". Find out more about Ann Herendeen.

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